A walking tour of Bay City offers a glimpse of how Hell’s Half Mile earned its notorious nickname

From May to October, Sam Fitzpatrick, the Education Coordinator for the Bay County Historical Society, leads in-person tours explaining Bay City’s history. One of the most-popular tours is of Hell’s Half Mile, which includes a six-block strip along Bay City’s waterfront. The area earned its notorious nickname in the late 1800s when thousands of lumberjacks would arrive from the timber fields of northern Michigan to spend their pay in Bay City’s gambling houses, saloons, theaters, and brothels.

Sam Fitzpatrick, Education Coordinator for the Bay County Historical Society, leads tours of the Hell's Half Mile area.Stroll along Water Street, Saginaw Street, and Third Street in Downtown Bay City today and you’ll find restaurants, bars, and luxury condos. Stop on the right night and catch live music in Wenonah Park or the Third Street Waterfall Park. On summer weekends, you can buy an ice-cold lemonade and warm, salty popcorn from vendors working at an art festival.

Wind the clocks back to the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, though, and you’ll find a completely different scene. Sure, you’ll find bars, restaurants, and hotels, however they might not be filled with the type of crowds we see in the area today.

Starting in the 1840s, and blossoming from 1860s through the 1890s, the lumber industry flourished in the Saginaw Valley. From the 1890s until the turn of the 20th Century, the industry gradually declined.

During its peak, though, Bay City played an integral role in the lumbering industry.

Each “felling” season, which was typically in the winter, thousands of men would head north to the timber fields of Michigan to harvest the Saginaw White Pine. The tree was valued for its durability and strength, making it a prime resource that ushered in new levels of wealth for those at the top.

The men harvesting the timber worked long, grueling days. Fights were frequent. While gathering for meals in the lumber camps they were forced to remain quiet to discourage rowdiness.

The corner of Third and Water streets, now home to the Bay City Antiques Store, St. Laurent Brothers, and Drift, was once the stomping grounds of legendary lumberjack Joe Fournier.Finally, during the spring thaw in late March or early April, they were given their paychecks for the entire season. The season’s pay ranged from $75 to $200.
After a winter of isolation, typically two things were on their mind at season’s end — whiskey and women.

The men boarded trains headed south to Bay City, the closest and largest municipality with a sliver of salaciousness along the riverfront. Some sources claim bottles were shared on the way down, so the men arriving already drunk.

Here, within a week or two, men spent their pay for the entire season on alcohol, food, hotels, gambling, and prostitutes.

Fitzpatrick points out architectural details, natural landmarks, and explains some of Bay City's history during the popular tours.Crime, liquor, violence, and prostitution reigned supreme in this district where a sort of criminal comaraderie formed. The police were incredibly outnumbered.

This is Hell’s Half Mile, where just about anything went.

This piece will examine some of the stops along the Bay County Historical Society’s Hell’s Half Mile walking tours. For a fuller story of the district, click here for more information on the public tours, scheduling, and private tours. You can learn about Bay County’s full history in the museum at 321 Washington Ave.

While the riverfront and surrounding iinfrastructure have changed, the stories will forever be there.

Kit Lapham/The Social Saloon

Toward the intersection of McKinley and Water streets, by the rear of what’s now the Comfort Inn, once stood the Social Saloon.

One of the most notorious women in the district, Kit, or sometimes recorded as Kate Lapham, was observed by a passing police officer smashing the windows out with a club. She had badly damaged and turned over several pieces of furniture, and was only wearing red undergarments in broad daylight. Her face had also sustained some damage and she was bleeding.

Toward the intersection of McKinley and Water streets, by the rear of what’s now the Comfort Inn, once stood the Social Saloon.Upon asking her what she was doing, she replied “If I cannot get satisfaction out of the proprietor, I would out of his property.”

She claimed her assumed lover, Ed Tierney, had gotten into an argument with her, knocked her to the ground and then struck her in the face, which explained the bleeding. Tierney was not on the scene when the officer arrived. Lapham was arrested for public drunkenness, given clothing, and brought down to jail.

Incidents like these seemed to be a repeat issue between the two.

When Lapham was brought to court for this incident, Tierney denied he had ever done such a thing to her, despite the evidence on her face. Lapham was sentenced to 20 days in jail for public drunkenness. In an ironic twist, Tierney bailed her out of jail. The two had apparently made up.

The Bay City Times reported several stories about her during the 1890s, and the locals loved to read the latest town gossip about her and her criminal acts.

A gallery on the first floor of the Historical Museum features the heritage of Bay County from pre-contact days through the present.Outside of incidents like these, she was also a noted kleptomaniac and loved stealing anything she could get her hands on. Reading through the court cases involving her and Tierney, the two seemed to resemble a team of sorts. Lapham would rob someone, and Tierney was always there to bail her out.

Downtown Bay City’s video series Bay City History also has more information on Kit, or Kat, and can be viewed here.

Joe Fournier

The intersection of Third and Water streets today is known for some Bay City staples such as St. Laurent Brothers, Drift, and the Bay City Antiques Center. During the late 19th Century, this area seemed to have been an epicenter of activity in the district.

One such story on this stop of the tour is that of Fabian “Joe” Fournier.

Historians believe stories of Joe Fournier in Bay City are woven into the tales of Paul Bunyan.Fournier was considered one of the toughest guys around during this time. Fournier arrived in Michigan from Quebec during the 1870s to find work in the booming lumbering industry. He settled in the Banks area where many French-speaking immigrants were known to have lived.

At 6 feet tall – a full foot taller than the average man at the time ­– Fournier was physically imposing.

The Historical Museum houses not only local history, but also the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of FameHe worked in the timber fields of Northern Michigan as a foreman, leading men through the woods to knock down trees. He was a hard and ethical worker, and it is said he almost always succeeded in getting his daily quota of lumber.

Some sources even claimed Joe had two full rows of teeth. Hyperdontia, as it is referred to, is a real disorder. There are stories of Joe sinking his teeth into anything wooden that he could to show how strong he was, to prove that he indeed had two full rows of teeth, and to make sure everyone knew he really wasn’t someone to mess with.

Fournier was also said to have been very strong and double jointed. He was known for working and fighting at high speeds. Some stories claim he even used his skull as a battering ram while fighting opponents.

When Joe was working, he was never rough or chaotic. But it seemed whenever the bottle touched his lips, his other side came out in force.

With his height, strength, and a reputation for brawling and biting wooden objects, just the sight of him must have struck fear into anyone walking down the plank sidewalks of Water Street.

In 1875, Fournier’s luck would run out.

At the foot of Third Street, just adjacent to the former site of the Third Street Bridge, was a steamship dock where the Daniel Ball would dock before departing for Saginaw, Alpena, and Au Gres amongst other locations.

One day, during a picnic at the Daniel Ball, alcohol was served and Fournier certainly must have partook. He was reported to have started biting the ships handrails as he boarded. Once back in Bay City, the legend claims Fournier told passersby’s he was headed “to hell.”

If you want to learn about Bay County's history from inside a climate-controlled building, visit the Historical Museum of Bay County.Blinky Robertson, another passenger on the Daniel Ball that day, despised Fournier due to his chaotic and violent nature. On the ship, Robertson grabbed a ship carpenter’s mallet and decided to take justice into his own hands.

Shortly after Fournier departed the ship, Robertson chased after him along Third Street and struck a fatal blow above his right ear with the mallet. The blow cracked Fournier’s skull open and killed him on the spot on Nov. 6, 1875.

Robertson ran off into hiding before he was caught. Interestingly, Robertson was charged with murder but got off on self-defense according to “Holy Old Mackinaw,” by Stewart H. Holbrook.  

Joe’s life — and death — became very well known in the region due to his legendary prowess.

The Historical Society offers Downtown Bay City Architectural Tours and Bay City Hall tours in addition to the Hell's Half Mile walking tours.During downtime in the timber fields, men would tell stories for fun. Stories tended to become exaggerated over time. As the stories grew taller and taller, and men like Joe (a tall, strong, hardworking guy with a dark side) would get mixed up with other legends of the woods, as there certainly more lumberjacks who fit this description all over. Over time, we have folk tales like those of Paul Bunyan; minus the rowdiness of Joe, of course. A more detailed explanation of this is available on the walking tour.

The Campbell House

When O.W. Odell took over the former Union House Hotel at the southeast corner of Third and Water in 1888, he changed the name to Campbell House. The building then underwent a large update to include electricity, bells, and to modernize the style. There were also sample rooms for commercial travelers on the second floor.

Previously, Odell was the proprietor of the Pacific Hotel in Port Huron. Odell was known to have established many restaurants along the Michigan Central Railroad, which also ran through Bay City.

The Bay City Antiques Center was once home to one of the city's finest and busiest hotels.He owned a large depot on First Street across from Maplewood Manor — a portion of which is still there. You can see a stone building with green trim which at one point was the baggage building.

Odell also recruited cooks from hotels in East Saginaw and Detroit to work at his Bay City location.

Then, just like now, the building consisted of three floors. It held 60 hotel rooms with accommodations for around 100 guests and employed 35 people at one point.

The area now known as Downtown Bay City was once legendary for its saloons, gambling houses, and brothels.According to “The Industries of the Bay Cities,” it was among the busiest and most popular hotels in the city when it opened. The first-floor bar carried fine wines and liquors, which probably sold well when the shanty boys and their paychecks arrived each spring.

The main floor featured offices, a billiard room, and a reading room. Rates started at $2 per day. On the tour, you’ll learn about a knife fight the occurred in the alleyway behind the hotel.

The building currently houses the Bay City Antiques Center.

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